(This story was first published in BooksActually’s Gold Standard anthology, which comprises short fiction “by the best cult writers of East Asia, Southeast Asia and the diaspora.” Please order your copy here.)
TO ATTEND MY graduation from middle school, Dad flew from Jakarta to Jogja, where I lived with Mom. He stayed in the room Mom had reserved for him in our house since their separation five years earlier. A week after Dad returned to Jakarta would have been my parents’ sixteenth wedding anniversary had they still been together. Mom bought a fancy white cake after work and cooked an elaborate dinner. As we sat down to eat she called Dad. She tried four times, but he didn’t pick up. She suggested we use my phone.
“He’ll answer if it’s you,” she said. The golden band that she’d never taken off her finger gleamed in the candlelight.
“Why are you doing this again?”
She told me the same things she had said many times: God shows you how good a woman you are by the husband He chooses for you; if your husband has left you, it means you must’ve done something wrong, either to God or to your parents or to your child. She was only trying to make things right.
“I can’t take it any more, Mom! Why can’t you just find another man?”
She looked at me as if I were one of her enemies. “I’m not like your dad. I won’t abandon my family.”
“Then it’s your own fault you’re miserable all the time.”
That was the first time she slapped me.
After dinner I packed my bags, sneaked out the window and got on the sleeper train to Jakarta. I tried not to think about how Mom might feel in the morning, finding my note in my empty room, realizing that after all those years of devoting herself to me, I’d left to become one of those sluts that had stolen her husband!
I lived with Dad in his apartment for two years. At first it was great. He enrolled me in the best high school. He made me lunch before going to work. He bought me everything I ever asked for and introduced me to sophisticated women—women who made music, built houses, and managed aid projects like he did. I was in love with him and he was in love with me. On Sundays we’d go to brunch at nice cafes or to the movies. On weekends he’d go out with women, or they would come over. Once I sneaked out of my room and eavesdropped on a conversation. Dad was saying, “When she wasn’t living here, I’d miss her and wish she were here, but now that she is living here, I wish she wasn’t, you know?”
One night when I thought Dad was sleeping at his girlfriend’s, he returned home and caught me naked on the couch with a boy. He punched me in the face and I moved back in with Mom. She met me at the airport, arms spread wide and face heavy with concern, but her embrace stank of gloating.
The next time I saw Dad again, he came to my high school graduation in Jogja. A week earlier I had announced to Mom that I was moving to Bali to live with my boyfriend and I didn’t give a fuck if she thought I was a sinner. She called Dad to come and stop me. He sat with Mom at the graduation ceremony and followed us home. When he walked towards me, something in me still wanted to flee.
The whole time I was packing, Mom cried and begged Dad to do something.
“At least let us drive you to the airport,” he said, sitting on the edge of my bed, looking old and helpless as he watched me zip my suitcases.
At the departure gate he slipped me an envelope of cash. I had never heard Dad say ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m sorry’ in my eighteen years of life, so the cash felt like love and apologies and acceptance. I was too proud and vengeful to hug him goodbye, but I held the envelope close between my fingers like a beloved’s hand all through the flight.
AFTER I MOVED to Bali I cut off all communication with my parents – I ignored their emails, calls, text and social media messages. In the last email from Mom that I read she said that she’d told her neighbors and relatives that I was attending university in Bali. After Dad had left her, she told them that he simply had to move to Jakarta for work. I wondered if any of them believed her.
My boyfriend Adi got us a room above his friend’s tattoo shop. He studied English while I got a job waiting tables. Two months later, my friends told me that my grandfather had passed. It turned out my mother had called every one of my friends whom she knew and asked them to pass the message on to me. My friends called me an ingrate for cutting my mother out, and I let them. I called Mom, wrote a note for Adi, whom I knew wouldn’t be welcome, and took the first plane to Jogja.
When I arrived men were sitting in folding chairs on Mom’s front yard. Snacks and cigarettes were being served on silver trays. Recitations of prayers streamed from inside the house. In the front room women sat on a mat, forming a circle around the room, reading from the Quran. All the mirrors had been covered with sheets.
In the family room Grandpa lay on a bed. He looked fresh, wearing a clean white shirt. My strength left me when I saw camphor balls placed beneath the bed. He was gone. Lying there was only a body, which would rot and smell. And I’d missed the chance to say goodbye to him. He used to tell me I was his favorite grandchild, but I didn’t even visit him once a month. I’d felt bad being in a room with him since his second stroke – he’d become paralyzed and it was impossible to carry on a conversation with him. But this now felt worse.
Mom walked in from the kitchen carrying a tray of cordial. Seeing me, she put it down and ran to hug me. She leaned her whole weight on me – I almost fell back. Behind her I saw Dad, also walking out of the kitchen. Of course. He never missed the big occasions. Every Eid after he had moved out, he visited Mom and me and joined us as we made the rounds of the neighbors and relatives, bringing cookies and asking everyone’s forgiveness. Every year Mom forgave him. Every year he left us again.
Dad used to say that he felt guilty for not being able to keep a home with Mom, so he promised to always be there with us on holidays. Mom used to say I should be thankful that Dad didn’t abandon his family completely – other husbands left without a word, without providing any support for their children. I was happy to see him, but it didn’t mean I didn’t feel bad for Mom.
He walked over and I let him hug me. His face was darker, so were his arms from the sleeves down. He’d been going on long rides on his big motorbike, it seemed.
‘I’m glad you’re here, Mia,’ he said.
Mom leaned into him and sobbed into his ears.
The next day we buried Grandpa. Dad had taken care of everything – secured a burial plot, ordered a marble headstone. My aunts and uncles thanked him for his generosity. As I spread flowers on Grandpa’s grave, I decided to take leave from work and stay with Mom for a week. She looked like she needed me.
When I told her this in the car, Dad jumped in and said he would also stay. ‘When else will I get the chance to spend this much time with you again, Mia?’
Mom grasped Dad’s hand at the steering wheel and smiled at me. ‘Our family together again,’ she said. I wanted to push her head against the dashboard.
At home Dad helped Mom with the dishes. I picked up all the garbage and sat down to relax in the backyard. Dad came over with two cans of beer.
‘I know you drink,’ he said and sat next to me.
Cautiously I accepted it.
‘How is Adi?’
I couldn’t believe he remembered my boyfriend’s name. ‘He’s fine, thanks. His studies are going really well.’
‘How about you? Are you working or taking classes somewhere?’
‘I work at this restaurant. The pay’s lousy, but we get free food, and my co-workers are cool.’
‘Is it fun living in Bali?’
‘The fun stuff is for tourists, and it’s expensive. When you don’t have so much money it’s not as much fun.’
‘You know you can call me whenever you need anything, right?’
‘It’s okay, Dad.’
‘What do you do when you’re not working?’
‘Hang out with friends, watch movies. Sometimes I take pictures, just when I’m bored or whatever. Did you go somewhere on your bike?’ I pointed to his tan lines.
‘Yeah, we took the bike to Pelabuhan Ratu,’ he said. ‘It was a six-hour ride. We stayed in this boutique hotel. I think it might’ve been there since colonial times. The rooms had balconies overlooking the pool, which was really nice, but the furniture was falling apart and everything at breakfast was way too spicy. But, boy, did we have a great time. We danced and drank coconut cocktails by the beach.’
‘Who’s the lucky girl this time?’
‘I’m seeing someone now. I’ve been seeing her for six months.’
I looked at him with interest. That was a first.
‘You should come visit me in Jakarta, I think you would like meeting her. She’s a gifted photographer. I’ve shown her your pictures on Instagram, she said you had a natural talent.’
‘You’ve seen my pictures?’
‘I thought they were really good.’ He showed me his phone. One of my pictures was his wallpaper. ‘Anyway, just let me know if you ever feel like visiting. And bring Adi.’
I was touched but also suspicious. And slightly smug – it seemed cutting him out for two months had worked. Did he think it was better to accept my choices than to lose me completely?
‘Now, do you need anything for your place in Bali? Sheets? Pots and pans?’
‘Sheets would be nice, Dad.’
We went to the department store and then to the beach. I must have spent too much time swimming because the next day I felt hot and cold at the same time. I lay on the couch coughing and shivering, taking off one sweat-drenched T-shirt after another every couple of hours. Dad wrapped a shawl around my neck and put socks on my feet. He brought me tea and vitamins, and he sat down to read to me. I put my head on his lap, nuzzling my nose against his soft stomach, listening to his story. His voice felt like a giant hammock on a sunny shore, gently rocking me to sleep.
FIVE MONTHS LATER, Adi left me. Since then I had missed too many hours of work and put in too many hours of partying. On weekends I called everyone in my phone looking for an invitation anywhere – anyone who would take us to any club.
‘There’s this guy I can ask, but he’s kind of a jerk,’ said my friend Wulan after I’d called her for the sixteenth time that Saturday night, pressing her to find us someone.
‘Then we won’t feel bad about using him,’ I said. ‘Tonight we party.’
‘You’ve been partying every day this week.’
‘Who else’ve you got?’
‘There’s this other guy, but he’s old.’
‘Old or young, good guys or jerks, tonight we party!’
‘I guess it’s better if I’m there to watch over you.’ Wulan said she would make some calls and get back to me.
In the meantime, Veni, another friend of mine, texted me that her dealer had got us into a party at this starlet’s villa. An hour later, she and I were lining up in front of the starlet’s gates. The bouncers searched our purses and took our cell phones and cameras. ‘You’ll get them back when you leave,’ they said.
The villa was deliciously warm with the sweat and breaths of beautiful party ants, toiling under the spell of an orange-haired queen shooting beats and flares from her throne in the centre of the room. Whiffs of pheromones exuded from their skin and mouths, leaving sparkling trails in the air. Dealers stood guard by the bathroom doors, counting cash for all to see.
Three pills later, my skin felt flat and cold as if pressed against glass. I sat by the pool, watching men drop like bird shit from the bungee tower up above. One swooped and splashed into the pool, bouncing on the elastic cords like a wrecking ball, slamming into the wall of music, cheers and shouts spurting from where he hit.
He unbuckled the cords from his ankles and fell into the pool. He slithered to the edge and pushed himself out, shaking the water off his body. When he looked up I saw an intense joy for life burning in his hot-coal eyes. He caught mine and walked straight up to me. I’d never seen him before. Guess I was just the first girl who crossed his path of adrenaline rush. He yanked me out of my glass case and pulled me to him. Our mouths meshed, and I sucked his natural high out of him.
He led me towards the beach, and the breeze threw us a welcome party. It felt so good to run free. We kissed and splashed each other. The waves knocked us over and we rolled on the sand. There was only one problem. I still had my maxi pad on. It was my fifth day, I was hardly bleeding any more. I threw sand on his face. As he wiped his eyes I slipped my panties off. To buy myself more time I threw my shirt on his head. I buried the pad and walked until the waves reached my waist so the ocean would wash away the stale blood smell. He carried me back to shore. I lay on the sand, he slid my panties to the side and pushed his tongue inside me.
The horizon flipped over.
‘You taste of the ocean,’ he said.
He came up and started fucking me before I could ask him to put on a condom. I averted my head and squeezed my eyes shut. When it was over, dawn’s fingers had peered through the slit between sea and sky. I could see silhouettes sitting by the villa’s back porch, pointing at me. Good thing the bouncers had confiscated all phones and cameras. Like any self-respecting woman I got up and picked up my shirt, half-buried in the sand. When I reached the villa, I saw Veni chatting up this blond man by the pool. She didn’t want to go, so I headed out by myself.
On my way out I got my phone back. There were dozens of messages and missed calls. Most of them from Wulan. At home I called her back.
‘Mia, where the fuck have you been?’
I told her about the starlet’s party.
‘And you didn’t bother inviting me?’
‘Veni could only bring one person.’
‘You harassed me all day and after you got your invitation you thought, to hell with me?’
‘Wulan, I’m sorry.’
‘When I couldn’t reach you, I was worried sick. Do you know what I’ve been doing for the last ten hours? Calling hospitals. You’ve been so out of control, I thought you OD’d or something. Now I find out you were partying without me? You’re a terrible friend, Mia. Adi was right, you’re selfish. He was right to break up with you.’
I screamed all sorts of expletives at her and threw myself at the wall. I bounced off it and fell miraculously whole on the bed. Why didn’t I break into a thousand pieces? If a person has no one left to love them, they should just explode like video game characters running out of lives. Maybe I would get AIDS and die, which would be a blessing, I thought. I traced the outlines of the flowers on my sheet – Dad bought me that sheet.
Dad loves me, doesn’t he? Maybe that was why I didn’t break apart. Someone still loves me.
I bellowed into my pillow. I needed to let it all out before calling him. If he heard as much as choking in my voice, he would hang up. I took five long breaths and dialled his number.
‘Hi, Dad.’ I tried to sound as cheerful as I could. ‘I was wondering if I might come visit you. Just for a few days. Maybe a week.’ I didn’t tell him I’d been dumped, but I was sure he could tell. I thought he would say, ‘That boy ditched you, didn’t he?’
But no. He sounded as though I was a ray of sunshine after days of storms. ‘I’ll get your room ready tonight. Do you need money for plane tickets?’
He loves me, he loves me, I thought. Mom says she loves me, but she hates what I’ve become. Dad accepts me for who I am. As long as I have him I won’t disappear from this world.
I ARRIVED AT Dad’s at three in the morning and woke up at noon, remnants of the previous night’s dream spinning slightly above my head. My phone rang and the images vanished in a powdery puff. It was Mom.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were going to see your dad?’
I made exaggerated sleepy noises so I wouldn’t have to give a clear answer.
‘Why didn’t you stop by Jogja? I miss you. When will you be visiting me?’
I could prod her neediness all the way from here.
The last time I talked to her was six weeks ago, right after Adi had broken up with me. I called her in tears, and she said, ‘I pray that you find the right man to show you the way, a man who can handle your complicated nature.’
Why did it always end up the same?
‘I don’t need any man to show me the way. You don’t think I’m smart enough to find my own way?’ I’d said.
‘As a mother, my duty is to raise you until you find someone who can be responsible for you,’ she’d said.
‘Then you’re off the hook. I’m responsible for myself now.’
‘I meant, until you find a husband.’
It sickened me to think that I’d grown in her womb, suckled at her breast. She’d given me a tumor that swelled in my throat and kept me silent when that bungee guy was fucking me, when I found out that Adi had been cheating on me – as silent as she had been when Dad visited us and invited his friends to our backyard for a barbecue. He’d flirted with women by the grill while Mom chopped onions and bell peppers in the kitchen. Instead of punching him and throwing his guests out of her house, she smiled and served them sodas.
That’s the kind of woman she wants me to be? That’s the kind of life she wants me to have?
I hung up and snuggled back under the covers. I pictured greying, premenopausal Mom stuffing her bag with Tupperware filled with lunch before leaving for work, fiddling with crystal swans on the glass shelves, lounging by the backyard waiting for happiness to descend. At least she wasn’t a complete idiot. At some point after Dad had left her, she’d to have decided that if she couldn’t have a husband, then she had to have things. She made Dad transfer the deed of the house to her, and buy her a car, expensive clothes and furniture. Dad never said no to her. Perhaps out of guilt, but I doubted it. It seemed he liked feeling like a macho provider, giving his wife everything she wanted – everything but her life back.
In the kitchen I saw Dad had left a sandwich in the microwave. I splashed water on my face while the coffee machine droned and dripped pungent liquid into my cup. I lay on the couch and looked around the apartment. The photographs kicked my eyes open like someone shouting Fire.
There was one of Dad running out of a smoke-filled forest, carrying a child wearing a mask, and covering his own nose and mouth with only his own hand. He’d told me that he worked at an aid organization because it was the highest paying job he could get, but in this picture he looked as though he really cared for that child.
There was a glamour shot of him posing nude on a large rock under a waterfall, only the curve of his right leg covering his secret. On the ground was a trail of shirts, skirts and sandals. I could never get him to swim in the sea, let alone skinny-dip under a waterfall!
Then I found the album beneath the coffee table, with the inscription: So you can remember me in the back of your mind. Love, Me. Inside I found more shocking pictures.
There was one of this kitchen, a woman’s bright blue underthing neglected among broken plates and cutlery on the floor. They seemed to have been brushed aside in a terrific lustful rush.
There was one of Dad pissing, soap bubbles making a nice border at the bottom of the photo. It had to have been taken by someone in the tub, having a bath. Whoever this woman was, Dad had let her take a picture of him using the toilet. I imagined the level of intimacy and comfort they had reached with each other. This was a special relationship, I thought, Dad had to love this woman. As soon as he got home, I would ask him to introduce me to her. I was curious about what she looked like.
But she wasn’t in any of the pictures. Here and there I saw a woman’s dress or shoes lying around, but that was it. No finger of hers came into frame, no shadow of hers could be seen on the ground.
Whoever took these pictures, she clearly knew about composition and she seemed to carry her camera everywhere. She had to be that woman photographer Dad mentioned at Grandpa’s funeral.
At dinner I showed Dad the album. ‘I really like her photos. When can I meet her?’
He seized the album from my hands like a starving man snatching a loaf of bread.
‘You’re here one day and you’re snooping through my stuff?’
‘It was under the coffee table!’
‘Just keep your hands off my stuff, all right?’
‘At Grandpa’s funeral you said I could meet her, but she’s not with you any more, is she?’
‘She was a friend, what can I say?’
‘You said you had been seeing her for six months, the longest you’ve ever seen someone since Mom.’
‘I might have seen her on and off for six months.’
‘In the inscription she called you love. Did you love her back?’
There was a photo of a cell-phone screen with a text message from Dad: I just saw the exhibition of that young photographer everyone is raving about. You’re the better artist and I mean it.
‘Many people call me love.’
‘If she doesn’t mean that much to you, why do you put her pictures around the apartment?’
Dad shrugged. ‘I like the way I look in them.’
Lying in bed that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about why the photographer didn’t include herself in the pictures. Was she embarrassed to be seen with Dad? Was she married? Better yet, perhaps she was an even bigger player that Dad ever was. He was just one of her many lovers. And to protect her privacy, yet to keep the memories of the moments they shared together, she took photographs of Dad and the places they visited, but never of herself. She sounded like a very cool person.
In fact, I thought, let her be everything Mom isn’t. Let her be the kind of woman I’d like to grow up to be. She won’t let conventions stop her from pursuing the life she wants. She’s undaunted by the stares and judgement of relatives and neighbors. She would rather lose face than be unhappy, put up a cheerful front, sit around all day feeling sorry for herself and waste her years away, years she’ll never get back, getting bitter, crying to her daughter at night, telling her what an evil bastard her father is, tearing her right down the middle with anger and confusion, and providing a hateful example for a daughter who wants to grow into a strong, self-sufficient woman.
Why did you leave, Eyes without a Face? Didn’t you want to meet me? Did you meet someone else? Did you find a different side of Dad that you couldn’t stand?
And here he was, months after she’d left, still surrounding himself with her vision.
What does he see when he lies on the couch and stares into the photographs? Does he hear her beyond the frame, counting to three and saying cheese? Are they portals of time and space that transport him back to the times when he could caress her hair, laugh at her jokes, and push inside her body?
Perhaps, I thought, just as artists want to be remembered for their work, and not for their personal lives, she too thinks her photos, her vision, paint a far more accurate representation of herself than her image ever could. Perhaps that was how she wanted Dad to remember her.
It occurred to me again what Dad had said, that he liked how he looked in those photos. Perhaps deep down Dad hated himself, but he liked the person that she saw, the person he was when he was with her, the person who was now gone without her by his side.
I knew then Dad was lying. She was special to him. He was capable of loving someone.
Come back, Eyes without a Face! I too need someone who can show me a version of myself that I can love.
AS IF TO prove that he was not hung up on Eyes without a Face, Dad made a show of dating several women. ‘I don’t know what time, but I’ll be coming home,’ he said every time he went out. I got the message.
Let them have him on the weekends, I had him all to myself on weekdays. In the mornings we made breakfast while listening to the news. He enrolled me in the best photography class in the city. I showed him my photos over dinner and he put the ones he liked up on the fridge. Once we drove around for two hours looking for a restaurant, and when we finally found it we had lost our reservation and had to sit at the bar. Our hair was messed up by the wind and our shirts became drenched with sweat. Still, we were the two people who laughed the most in the entire place. We had the most fun.
Lately, though, he’d been ignoring me. I waited for him at the mall or the gallery where he promised to meet me, but he never showed up. Didn’t even care to let me know. I wanted to move out – did I have to take myself away so he would love me again? I wanted him to find me naked with another boy, I wanted to tell him I drank myself stupid for everyone to rape because he wasn’t there. But then I’d find by my bedroom door a new laptop or a new camera wrapped in a bow, and I thought Dad loved me after all.
At least I knew he would always come back to me. I’m the only woman in this world who can say that with some certainty.
One night I was giving Dad a massage and he said, ‘Did I ever tell you, before your mom and I got married we had to take this marriage preparation course. The imam said, Listen, all of you brides-to-be, after you’re married, whenever your husband needs you for sex, you must rush to his side. Even if you’re already on your way to the market, if he calls from the bedroom, you need to attend to him immediately. And I thought, I made the right decision marrying your mom.’ He chuckled.
My fondness for him vanished. I felt offended for Mom. He turned around and looked at me as if a cloud of smoke had revealed to him that I was not one of the women he was dating, I was his daughter. He looked away, and I felt as if stranded on a monstrous planet.
Sometimes I wondered if Dad did not plan all this from the beginning: marry a woman of traditional Javanese values, make a family, and move back to Jakarta to resume his bachelor life, knowing that his wife would always keep an open door for him. He would skate back and forth between his two lives as he liked. I imagined Dad with such cruel genius, and I shuddered with contempt and admiration.
There was a knock on the door. Dad answered it, his chest shiny with oil. It was one of them.
‘I wish you’d called,’ he said. ‘This isn’t such a good time.’
I saw an opportunity for revenge. ‘Who is it?’ I shouted.
‘Who is that?’ I heard the woman ask.
‘That’s my daughter,’ Dad said.
I took off my shirt and jeans, and walked to the door, catching the woman’s eyes, which were inflamed the moment she saw me.
‘You’re disgusting,’ she said.
I went to my room and put my clothes back on to the sound of them fighting. The front door slammed. My door was kicked open.
It flashed before me, the night he’d punched me in the nose. He’d walked right up to me, fist to my face. As he did now.
‘You wanna be a fucking slut, is that what you wanna be?’ he’d said. ‘I’ll lock you up in this room and feed you nothing but donuts until you’re sixty and fat as fuck, so bastards like me can’t get his hands on you.’
‘Why not do it yourself?’ I said, chin uptilted. ‘Go ahead, hit me again!’
He didn’t make a move. I pulled out my suitcase from under the bed and started throwing my things in.
‘You hit her too, didn’t you? That’s why she left. Because she’s not Mom. Because she’s not me. She left your ass the moment she figured out what you really are. I bet she even hit you back.’ I pushed past him out the door. ‘Now you will lose me like you lost her.’
He grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back. ‘Where the fuck d’you think you’re going?’ His eyes were sunken with dark rage.
I screamed and he bounced me against the wall.
I held the back of my head, hot and stinging. My eyes burned with easy hate.
For a second I thought I saw regret flit across his face. But then he said, ‘What did your mom do to you, Mia? How did you get so fucked up like this?’ He fell to the floor, covering his face. It was the first time I saw him cry.
It fascinated me to see how I stirred up so much pain and violence in him.
I threw myself upon his chest and squeezed him so hard I bruised my arms. At that moment I knew I had the power to hurt him much more than he could ever hurt me. I let him go and grabbed my suitcase. When I walked past him, he looked up to me.
Don’t go, love, his eyes said. But they said something else too: I hate you for even thinking of leaving me.
I wanted to hurt him. I walked out the door and slammed it shut. I don’t love you, and I won’t love you, and I will make sure you know it.
(The story was originally published in the prestigious anthology BooksActually’s Gold Standard. You may also like to watch this video of Eliza reading the above excerpt at NT Writers Festival, Australia, May 2016.)